Film 2019: All The President’s Men

I’m surprised, and in a way a little ashamed, that I haven’t had this film in my collection long before now. After all, it marked a turning point in my life, perhaps not as extensively as did JusticeLeague of America 37, but certainly as much as starting to read The Lord of the Rings from Didsbury Library.

From 1980 to 1983 I worked in my first job as a fully-qualified Solicitor, at a small, two-man branch office in Romiley, a village-like part of Stockport, to the south east of the centre. Early in 1981, and at my expense, we started renting an old, top-loading VHS video recorder from Granada, from whom our TV was also rented. Towards the back end of that year, a video rental shop opened up in Romiley, and I became a member, in order to hire a film for each weekend. My first choice was All The President’s Men.

I was not, then, the political enthusiast I became. I had lived through Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, but they had been background noise rather than anything I was interested in. My first, nascent sense of American politics came indirectly through comics: I kept reading references to something incredibly hip called Doonesbury, which intrigued me. In the summer of 1981, I saw a Doonesbury omnibus volume in Wilshaws (a much-missed City Centre bookshop), at only £2.95, enough of a snip in an era when expenses were few and salary decent, to take a flyer on. I loved it, but it was full of references to things I knew nothing about.

All three of us sat down to watch All The President’s Men, and all three of us were impressed. This might have been October/November.

In theJanuary of 1982, I found a good condition paperback of the book in a long-vanished second-hand bookshop on Shudehill, just down from the bookstalls. I read it, surprised firstly to learn that the book went on some distance beyond the period of the film, but not as far as Nixon’s resignation. For that, I needed thesequel, ‘The Final Days’ and for that I went back to Wilshaws. I have those copies still.

And they contained references to things I was still ignorant of, not least to the famous ‘Joe Welch moment’. So I started hunting in the American History section of the Library, most often at Central Ref, where the selection was more widespread. My first choice, a book about the McCarthy era, was dull and dry, but I struck gold with my second choice, David Halberstam’s classic ‘The Best and the Brightest’, a long but absorbing account of the generation of men who took America into the Vietnam War. In time, I would suck that section dry.

All because I rented this film on VHS.

I know a tremendous amount about the making of All The President’s Men. The screenplay was by William Goldman, and I had heard of but not yet read his legendaey ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, which I urge on anyone with the least interest in the film industry. There’s a very lengthy section in that book about this film, so I know a lot of the twists and turns.

What I know most of all is that Goldman was passionate, almost obsessive, about not ‘Hollywooding-up’ the material. The Watergate Affair, and what it revealed about the conduct of Government in those years (which is of direct relevance to the antics of the current incumbent, even if only to demonstrate how much smarter Tricky Dickie was in comparison) was of massive importance to the history of any country and not least of America, the self-proclaimed (and sometimes actual) bastion of democracy. With all the power a scriptwriter can have, i.e., bugger all, he was insistent that the film be true to the material, that it be accurate, that none of it should be sensationalised, that it stand as close to the historical record as the reduction of nearly six months’ patient, detailed and often frustrating investigation could be.

For the benefit of anyone under forty, let me summarise Watergate. In thesummer of 1972, with President Richard Nixon certain to be nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for re-election in November, five men were arrested trying to break-in to the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. Junior Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, was assigned to cover  routine arraignment, but became interested in some unusual details. Working in collaboration with fellow junior reporter, Carl Bernstein, Woodstein (asthe two were bracketed at the paper) doggedly pursued a non-story until it revealed a massive story of corruption, manipulation, and undermining of the Constitution that eventually led all the way to the top. All the way.

Woodstein’s investigations ultimately led to the revelation that President Richard Nixon had knowingly ordered the cover-up of criminal acts (of which he probably did not know in advance) in direct violation of his Oath of Office. Despite resistance and denial stretching across two years, Nixon eventually became th first and only President to resign his office.

Thanks to two nobodies, regarded by their paper as no-hopers.

The film was directed by Alan J Pakula, and starred two of the biggest film stars of the time, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Jason Robards performs a show-stealing supporting role as Post Editor Ben Bradlee.

The film is, indeed, what Goldman wanted of it. Though you’re always conscious that these are *Robert Redford* and *Dustin Hoffman*, they do inhabit their roles comfortably, without histrionics or emoting. The entire film is naturalistic, and the intercutting of television scenes showing the real-life politicians is markedly grainy in contrast, but not excessively so.

It’s a mark of the film’s intentions that, when the Post refused permission to film in their newsroom, the film’s designers measured everything to the last inch and constructed an exact replica in Burbank, complete with the identical brand of desks, repainted, and reconstructions of out-of-date telephone directories from the time period in question.

Neither Hoffman nor Redford, and definitely not the script, goes deep into Woodstein as people. Both actors play then ccorsing to the details they giveof themselves in the book, but the investigation is the thing. That is the story, that is the film, and nobody is going off-reservation to blur the essentials.

At Goldman’s decision, the film cuts out the entire, incomplete second half of the book. The film needs a structue and the structure needs an ending, not a tailing off. The story ends on the pair’s biggest mistake, a revelation that is actually true in fact but predicated on a mistake of attribution. It might seem a strange place to stop, but Goldman argued that the audience knew it wasn’t the end, just a set back, and it’s the nearest thing to a conclusion this side of Nixon’s resignation.

But what the film does end on is Woodstein and the Post’s decision to carry on. A shot of the pair, typing at separate desks, alone at night in the newsroom, merges into the same newsroom by day, full of people. It’s Nixon’s re-inauguration, playing live on the newsroom TVs, and everyone stops work and gathers to watch, except Woodstein, at their desks, the camera edging in so that we see Nixon swear on a bible in the left of the screen and thereporters type in the right.

Then that telex shot of guilty pleas and verdicts, of names we’ve heard throughout the film. Pakula and Goldman kept all the watergate conspirators off-screen, voices at the ends of telephones, a superb decision not to distract the audience with actors playing faces they know.

Is it true? The film is faithful to the book, which most people regard as being faithful to the facts, a position emphasised by that list of convictions. One scene isn’t, imported from an alternate script by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, where Bernstein fakes his way into a secretary’shouse to worm answers out of her. Nor is the famous phrase, now  trope, ‘Follow the Money’.

But it feels true. As true as a film can ever be. It feels solid, grounded, rooted. It feels like what it must have been like, and without having lived that history as a fly on the wall, you can’t say more than that. These were the people, these were the times, these were the events. Watch them, learn from them, be thankful that a time existed when something like this could be done, because there won’t be anything of this quality or verisimilitude about the current President of the United States of America.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock (film)

Don’t fret. All will be explained.

This is a pretty belated addition to last year’s series of blogs on the Dortmunder series of comic crime novels by the late Donald E Westlake. I mentioned at the time that the first book, The Hot Rock, was filmed in 1972, though it was several years later before I saw it, on reissue, under its unwieldy British title How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
I’ve never seen it since, until making the effort to watch it again, with the intention of recording my thoughts.
The film comes with an impressive pedigree: it stars Robert Redford and George Segal, plus the inimitable Zero Mostel in a supporting role, it is directed by Peter Yates, the director of Bullitt and the screenplay is written by William Goldman, who was already noted for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Hell, it even has a soundtrack by Quincy Jones!
Unfortunately, none of that makes this into a good film. It’s not a good Dortmunder film, for all that Goldman is faithful to the spine of the story, though in making that assessment, I’m hampered by my knowledge of fourteen books featuring our favourite hangdog planner and his fox-faced friend when this film is an adaptation only of the very first book – which was originally planned to be a hard-boiled crime story starring the ultra-serious Parker.
As a novel, The Hot Rock is very different from the series as a whole, much more serious in every respect, and the film reflects that position, as it had to: Bank Shot was only published in the year the film appeared.
But even despite this, the film doesn’t really cut it. In fact, I don’t think it really works all that well as a film, if you try divorcing it from who you personally think the characters should be.
Goldman’s script is fine in itself. Anyone who has read his two superb books about his life and work in Hollywood will see how his adaptation hews closely to the principles he sets out there (the books are Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: if you haven’t read them, do so).
For adaptations, Goldman works with the spine of the book, staying as close to that as film-making allows, but he is absolute about how film-making is compression, about the urgency of the story having to give as much information in as short a time as possible. Thus it’s no surprise to see that the gang, or string, is cut from five men to four, and the six phases of the crime also to four.
It’s Chefwick, the locksmith and model train nut, who goes, and with him the least plausible phase of the crime, involving breaking into a sanatorium with a life-sized model train. Kelp becomes the locksmith: he also becomes Dortmunder’s brother-in-law, setting up an instant connection between the characters that doesn’t requiring stopping the story to explain anything.
Similarly, the utility man, Alan Greenwood, becomes explosives expert Allan Greenburg, and the crooked lawyer, Andy Prosker, becomes Abe Greenburg (the Zero Mostel role), his father. This enables the lengthy and slow moving train sequence to be replaced by a much shorter and more direct scene where the gang force Abe Greenburg to hand over his Safe Deposit boxkeys by apparently killing his son.
Lastly, the final phase, where the gang have to steal the Balabamo Emerald (in the film, the Sahara Stone, a diamond) back from their double-crossing employer, is also by-passed. Instead, Dr Amusa sacks the gang, throwing in his lot with Greenburg Senior, before Dortmunder takes the diamond from the Bank. This sets up the statutory happy ending (Hollywood. 1972. Suck it up) as the gang get away with the Hot Rock.
Incidentally, there is an in-joke at the start of the film, when Goldman replaces the kleenex gag as Dortmunder leaves prison with a brief conversation between Dortmunder and the Governor about the former going straight, to which, after a short pause, Dortmunder openly says he can’t. Goldman was making use here of a real-life incident in Butch Cassidy’s career which he’d had to delete from that film.
Skilful though the adaptation is, and conscientiously as Goldman uses Westlake’s dialogue wherever possible, the problem is that, as Goldman himself admits, he can’t really do comedy. Strange as that may seem from the writer of Butch Cassidy, Goldman is aware of his limitations, and flat out comedy is not his metier. He can shape the story very creditably, but he’s not a atural for what is needed to make this film fly.
Nor, despite his track record does Yates – an English director who worked in Hollywood – do much to set this film up in the way it needed to be to work. His most famous work, Bullitt, a fast-paced, action-oriented Steve McQueen thriller, had demonstrated his ability with crime films, though Yates then went on to alternate action and comedy films for the next decade.
For someone so skilled at action, it seems strange that Yates allows the film to crawl along, when it’s clearly crying out for an injection of pace. But the action moves lazily at each stage, and the characters perform in a low-key, unhurried fashion throughout, never displaying any serious degree of liveliness, let alone urgency.
Indeed, when the helicopter comes into play, Yates lets the story virtually stop whilst we follow the copter on an aerial tour of New York City that lasts several minutes (thus directly contradicting Goldman’s principles). Considering that the gang are on their way to break into a Police Station via the roof, this in no way helps the tension.
How much of this is down to Yates seeking a specific approach for the film, and how much of it to the cast themselves, but with the proud exception of Ron Leibman as Murch, and a few bits of minor histrionics from Segal, everybody underplays their parts to the extent that the life is sucked out of Mostel’s bombasticism. You must have seen him as Max Bialystock in the original version of The Producers, and if you haven’t, what have you been doing with your life? Abe Greenburg is a slighter version of that, given less room to play, but Mostel is acting against a wet blanket here.
Paul Sand, as Allan Greenburg, is a nonentity. I know he’s supposed to be dry, but Sand could be the Sahara Desert (as opposed to Stone) on this evidence, whilst Redford is so reserved in his performance, underplaying when the film cries out for a more exaggerated, stylised approach, that  he kills any chance the story has of taking off.
Leibman at least is innocent of such charges. He’s a ball of energy, gum-chewing, always active, greeting every situation with gleeful absorption, as was the case in all his film appearances in that era. He’s what is needed, someone determined to get everything out of what he does, and as sucj he stands out like a sore thumb.
He’s probably the best thing about the film, but even that is skew-whiff, because he’s not Murch. That’s not Stan Murch there. You can hang the name of Leibman’s shoulders, but there’s no way he will ever be Murch.
Which leads us back to the one greatest problem with this adaptation. Ignore little things, like how Dortmunder and Kelp are too well-dressed, too expansively dressed in Kelp’s case, too expensively dressed in Dortmunder’s, and how in keeping with Seventies fashions Dortmunder is for a habitual criminal just released from his second prison term. Sure, these jar, they look wrong, but nothing s more wrong that when he gaze at Redford’s clean cut, handsome face, that well-styled fair hair, his perfectly proportioned body, and you try to call him John Archibald Dortmunder and you can’t. Fucking hell, that’s Robert Redford! Dortmunder’s no Redford, and Redford is not, could not ever be, a Dortmunder.
And this film can’t work.
For all that, I understand The Hot Rock to be the best of the five films made by adapting Donald Westlake’s book. Whether I have the nerve to try any of the others is debatable.

That’s more like it.